Ten Corrections

Ten Corrections*

(Dialectical Pairs)

The idea of using his knowledge in order to make himself better seems never to have occurred to him.
                                        – Aldous Huxley, on Marcel Proust
Le devoir de faire mon oeuvre primait celui d’etre poli ou meme bon.
[The duty to my work took precedence over the duty to be polite or even good.]
                                       – Marcel Proust
In the Brothers Karamazov Grushenka tells the fable of the little onion. A vicious old woman dies and goes to hell, but her guardian angel, straining his memory, recalls that she once, only once, gave a beggar the gift of a little onion she had dug up from her garden. He holds the little onion out to her, and the old woman grasps it and is lifted out of the flames of hell. This fable has always struck me as revolting: what human monster did not throughout his life make the gift of a little onion, if not to others, to his wife, to his children, to his dog? That single, immediately erased instant of pity is certainly not enough to absolve Muhsfeld. It is enough, however, to place him, too, although at its extreme boundary, within the gray band, that zone of ambiguity which radiates out from regimes based on terror and obsequiousness.
                                   – Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved
It’s only a fable, but it’s a good one; Matrina, who cooks for me now, told it to me when I was still a little girl. It goes like this:Once upon a time an old woman died who was as wicked as could be. And she left not one good deed behind her. Devils seized her and threw her into a lake of fire. And her guardian angel thought to himself: What good deed of hers can I tell God about? At last he remembered one, and he said to God: She dug up an onion in her garden and gave it to a beggar. And God said to him, If you give her the onion to hold on to, you can pull her out of the lake with it, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can enter paradise; but if the onion breaks off, then the old woman must stay where she is. The angel hurried to the old woman and held out the onion to her. All right, old lady, he says, take hold of this while I pull. And he started to pull gently, and the other sinners in the fiery lake, when they saw her being pulled out of it, grabbed onto her feet, so they could be pulled out too. And the old woman who was as wicked as could be started to kick at them: It’s me he’s pulling me out, not you, the onion is mine, not yours. No sooner had she spoken than the stem of the onion broke. And the old woman fell back in the lake and is burning there today. And the angel wept and went away.
                                    – Feodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
The whole truth is that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery, but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people, … I have dwelt on this chapter of the story, which the Jerusalem trial failed to put before the eyes of the world in its true dimensions, because it offers the most striking insight into the totality of the moral collapse the Nazis caused in respectable European society… not only among the persecutors but among the victims.
                                 – Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem
 The Holocaust is a subject that has to be confronted in a spirit of humility; whatever Mrs. [sic] Arendt’s many virtues, humility was not one of them. “Judge not, that ye be not judged” – but Hannah Arendt loved to judge, and was at her most effective in the role of magister humanitatis, invoking moral pathos. And thus she rushed in where wiser men and women feared to tread, writing about extreme situations which she in her life had never experienced, an intellectual by temperament always inclined to overstatement, most at ease when dealing with abstractions, at her weakest when dealing with real people in concrete situations.
                                – Walter Lacqueur Encounter, 1979
Nothing can ever atone for the fact, of course, that one section of the Jewish population is helping to transport the majority out of the country. History will pass judgment in due course.
                                                      Diaries of Etty Hillesum, Jewish Council  volunteer
                                                       at  Westerbork, died in Auschwitz
Just imagine it was only about twenty years ago that people began to think that the use of “he” as a general pronoun might be exclusive of women. At a certain point, one realized that it does make a difference….in the case of “he” it points to the efficiency of patriarchy.
                                                           – Elaine Pagels, The New Yorker
Some readers may take offense at my use of “he” to denote the arbitrary person. Let me assure these readers that I share their goal of inclusiveness in language and differ with them only about the means to that goal. My view is that the traditional usage in this case makes English more inclusive, not less. The rule governing traditional usage is that when “he” denotes the arbitrary person, its gender is purely grammatical, not semantic, and hence carries no implications as to the referent’s sex. So understood, “he” no more denotes a man because of being masculine than the German “die Person” or the French “la personne” denotes a woman because of being feminine. The alternative practices that are currently recommended as inclusive – such as saying “he or she” or alternating “he” with “she” – actually threaten to rob the language of its capacity for gender-neutral reference to persons.
         – David Vellemen, Practical Reflections,
                    quoted in Jonathan Lear, Love and Its Place in Nature
Because you can’t beat them: you just flee (and thank God you can flee, can escape from that massy five-foot-thick moggoty-cheesy solidarity which overlays the earth, in which men and women in couples are ranked and racked like ninepins; thanks to whatever Gods for that masculine hipless tapering peg which fits light and glib to move where the cartridge-chambered hips of women hold them fast.)
                            William Faulkner, Absolom! Absolom
 Kleine Morgenbetrachtung aus grossen Liebe entstanden. Eigentlich ist doch die Haputsache, das wir uns vierzig Jahre so liebten and leben, eigentlich ist mir doch nicht so ganz gewiss, das dies alles ein Ende haben soll. Gewiss ist das Nichts – en tant que personliche Bewusstsein, und also das tatsachliches Nichts -uberaus wahrscheinlich und alles anders hochst unwahrsheinlich. Aber erleben wir nicht immerfort, seit 1914 und nun jetzt seit 1933 und in dieser letzten Zeit immer gehaufter, das allerunwahrscheinlichste grausig Phantastische, ist uns nicht das vordem absolut Unverstellbare zur Selbstverstandlichkeit und Alltaglichkeit geworden? Wenn ich die Verfolgungen in Dresden, wenn ich den 13 Februar, wenn ich diese Fluchtlingswochen erlebt habe, warum soll ich nicht ebensogut erleben (oder eben: ersterben), dass wir, Eva und ich, irgendwo uns mit Engelsflugeln oder in sonst einer schnurrigen Form wiederfinden? Nicht nur das Word “unmoglich” ist ausser Kurs geratten, auch “unverstellbar” hat keine Gultigkeit mehr.
[A brief reflection for the morning owed to great love: After all, what is most important is that for forty years we have so lived and loved each other that I am, after all, not at all certain it should ever come to an end. Certain it is that nothingness – en tant que personal consciousnness, and therefore, Nothingness in fact, is altogether likely, and anything else highly unlikely. But haven’t we experienced since 1914 and even more since 1933, and most recently ever more frequently the most horribly fantastic, the most utterly unlikely things? Hasn’t the absolutely unimaginable become run of the mill and expected? If I have survived the persecutions in Dresden, if I have survived the 13th of February and these weeks of flight, why shouldn’t Eva and I just as well survive (or rather, die) to find one anther again somewhere fitted out with angel wings or in some form or other equally odd? Not only has the word “impossible” fallen out of use, “unimaginable” has lost all meaning as well.]
                                                   – Viktor Klemperer, Tagebuch, 18 Mar 1945
 So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.
                                                                                                                                                                        – Isaiah, LV. 11
Truth, it seems to me, is known only to the person who is affected by it, and if he chooses to communicate it to others, it automatically becomes a lie.
                                                                                         –  Thomas Bernhard
“She sees that I shrink, in respect of my fear for the peace of my house,” he thought, “and she will use her advantage, as is a woman’s way. She is more a female than she is an individual and my wife. I may not be surprised, though it is always a little painful to see the eternal feminine displacing its wiles in one’s own wife. It would make one laugh ruefully, it has indeed an irritating effect upon me, to perceive that a person thinks to deal according to his individual mind, when all he really does is to repeat the general pattern – mortifying indeed it is! But what are such thoughts? I can only think, not say them. What I must say is this.” And he went on.
                                – Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers
Man sees in woman, woman in man, almost always too much of the generic characteristics of the other’s sex, and too little of what is individual in the other. In practical life, this does less harm to men than to women. The social position of women in most instances is so low because it is not determined by the individual characteristics of the woman herself, but by the general ideas which are current concerning the natural function and needs of woman. A man’s activity in life is determined by his individual capacity and inclination, whereas a woman’s activity is supposed to be determined solely by the fact that she is a woman. Woman is to be the slave of the generic, of the general idea of womanhood. So long as men debate whether woman, from her “natural disposition” is fitted for this, that, or the other profession, the so-called Woman’s Question will never advance.
                            – Rudolf Steiner, Philosophy of  Spiritual Activity (Philosophie der Freiheit)
I wanted to try to begin graduate school in poetry.
                                                           Nick Flynn, The New Yorker, July 12-19, 2004
“Who says you are a poet? Who defined you as a poet?”
“No one. (neutral) Who defined me as a person?”
“Did you study it?”
“Study what?”
“To be a poet. Didn’t you try to finish your degree, where you prepare to be… Where it is taught?”
“I didn’t think it was something that was taught.”
“Where does it come from then?”
“I thought… I thought … from God.”
                                                                   The Trial of Joseph Brodsky,  Feb. 18, 1964
  …I’m shocked by the petty sorrows – microscopic in comparison with mine – with ours – the nineteenth century novel deals with. I even hurled Trollope to the floor when he tried to make me indignant over the fact that a rich widow, a clergyman’s daughter, had recieved a letter – a perfectly correct letter – from a bachelor, Mr. Slope, which episode occupies twenty pages, to say nothing of the hundreds of pages the author devotes to the equally earthshaking problem of whether a priest should remain at the head of an old-age home till the end of this days or be replaced. To us, Russians living in the year 1944, such problems appear ant-like, even bug-like.
                                                      June 28, 1944 Kornei Chukovsky, Dairy, 1901-1969
What an intoxicating writer Trollope is! I am reading his John Caldigate and find it so exciting that I have to put it down in the tragic parts: I can’t go on, I’m too “involved.” Then there is the sure hand with which he draws the characters, his knowledge of life and the veery depths of the human soul, and the modesty of it all -you feel he has no idea how brilliant he is…                                                      op. cit, January 8, 1957
                                                   The Last Toast
Here’s to domestic wreck
to my life run amok
to solitary for two
and dear, here’s to you –
to your eyes – their ice;
to your lips – their lies;
And here’s to the world:
it is cruel and cold.
And here’s to God:
He let me go.
                                                                              – Anna Akhmatova
Katchens Puerlitat zeigt sich in dem letzten Tagen in dem haufig und ernsthaft wiederholten: Wo bleibt Gott? Aber dieser Puerlitat teilt sie mit Millionem. Erst wenn (und weil) es ihnen schlecht geht, zweifeln sie an dem gutigen Gott.
                                         Klemperer Diaries
[Katchen’s childishness has shown itself these last few days in the often and earnestly repeated: “Where is God?” But this is a childishness shared with millions. Only when (and because) things go wrong, do they doubt of God and his goodness.]
These pairings are meant to stand on their own, without explication. But experience with trial readers has shown that what appears to me to be self-evident is by no means apparent to the world at large. Hence the following GLOSS:
The title is Ten Corrections. The second item in each group is meant to be read as a correction of the first. In the third group there is a correction of the correction.
l. Huxley is a minor literary figure. Proust is one of the greats. Huxley is a moralist. Proust is an artist. The pairing demonstrates the qualitative difference between these two types. Huxley reproaches Proust. He wants Proust to be not what he is – a creative force in the class of Cervantes, say – but, rather, a better person – whatever that means; whereas if Proust had not been what he was, not realized his nature in action, Huxley would never have heard of him. What could be more fatuous? Proust, on the other hand, fully recognizes his obligation to be not only good but -and this is especially endearing – polite! (His great refinement in manners is what led Gide mistakenly to suppose the artist could not coexist with a sensibility so developed in social artiface; and yet the wonder is that the artist can coexist with almost any description of man). And he regrets that these obligations are subordinate to, are preempted by, the obligation to his work: ie, to his talent, his conscience, his calling. Proust is fully aware that one desideratum is in conflict with the other: the artist’s sense of duty – in this case mistaken for selfishness – is stronger than the social man’s. Had the choice been between two obligations of equal weight, it might be called tragic. But it is not. Being “good,” except in extreme situations where the consequence of choices are clearly defined, is an amorphous concept at best; otherwise, there probably are situations in which the priority is not with the art. But Huxley was thinking of daily life, not eventualities of this type.
2. The second pairing is interesting not because Primo Levi remembers Grushenka’s anecdote, or cites it to make a point, but because he remembers it incorrectly. In Levi’s version, the old woman is rescued by her one good deed. In the original story, her one good deed cannot help her. It fails to rescue her precisely because it cannot outweigh a lifetime of selfishness. (She kicks off the other sinners.) Why did he get it wrong? One doesn’t know. But the pairing demonstrates how emotional bias can interfere with intelligence in good causes as well as bad, perhaps because this is the nature of causes. Although Levi is on the side of the angels, his zeal to make a case inadvertently undermines the fidelity of his memory. Even in a man whose integrity has earned universal respect, the mind is subject to the deleterious effect of the passions: in this case, the overriding desire to bring the German people to judgment for the atrocities he had experienced at first hand.
3. Hannah Arendt was reviled and persecuted – I do not think it is too strong a word – by liberal Jewish opinion in the form of groups and individuals in the United States, and especially in New York, for suggesting, in her coverage of the Eichmann trial, that the Jewish Councils in occupied countries inadvertently collaborated in the extermination of their people by numbering the Jews [the sin of David!]and itemizing their wealth. If the Councils had refused to cooperate with the Nazis, for all that cooperation was based on a conviction that it could bring some relief, the probability is that a great many more individuals would have escaped the Nazi dragnet. The “correction” is written in the spirit of judgment against her for daring to suggest a notion so damaging to Jewish self-esteem. The “correction of the correction” is taken from the diary of Etty Hillesum, one of those astonishing documents that have survived the period whose purity and beauty vindicate the notion that it is right to think the best as well as the worst of our species. Etty Hillesum sees it more or less the same way that Hannah Arendt saw it: the Jewish Councils must bear the weight of shame. No one could be more qualified to make such a judgment. She herself worked on a Jewish Council in Amsterdam. And she did not take advantage of the opportunity to escape when it was offered to her, but chose rather to accompany her family to Auschwitz. The moral authority of such an individual cannot be contested and shores up – if it needs shoring up – the same quality in Hannah Arendt.
4. Demonstrates the irreversible damage that ideology has done to the English language.
5. Faulkner, great and a great misogynist. Celine might fit into this category, likewise, but what might be called his misogyny is absorbed by the broader category of misanthropy. Victor Klemperer, like so many Germans brought to the bar of the unendurable – cf. the Abscheidbriefe in Du Hast Mich Heimgesucht bei Nacht – is, I hope, representative.
6. In this case the correction is only apparent. The distinction is not between chaff and wheat, but between two perennial types, the prophet and the literary artist, between the Muse and the Holy Ghost; nor is it a question of the march of civilization, of the assault on language by advertising, propaganda and journalism. Thucidides writes: “Corcyra fell with its component parts” because the “agreed upon currency of words for things was subjected to random barter.”
 7. Inasmuch as the first item represents the thoughts of a fictitious character (Potiphar), the second is not so much a “correction” as a supplement. For a true contrast, consider Pope John Paul II’s “Meditation on Woman” (Mulieris dignitatum, 1974), in which he defines woman by her roles: virgin, wife, mother, omitting all who, like Mary Magdalene, do not fit into one of these generic categories.
8,9,10. Gloss is superfluous.



    On Gozo, the second island comprising Malta, now a state with EU Membership, with under half a million inhabitants, a strategic bulwark against two tidal waves of invasion, Suleiman’s Turks in the sixteenth century, and Hitler’s Luftwaffe in the twentieth, on a promontory with no adjacent town or habitation stands a sandstone church with a high spire visible from all sides: Our Lady of Pinu. It happened that my visit to Malta coincided with the return of a native, my janitor from 85th Street in New York, who took me on a tour of his island, not five miles wide, not twenty‑four long; our sightseeing, including in short order a prehistoric temple site, Calypso’s reputed cave, the capital city, Victoria, with its fortress and prison for recreant knights whose handprints are still visible on its whitewashed walls, culminated in a visit to this local shrine. We parked the car, entered, and walked along the nave to arrive at the apse in back: it was hung with ex‑votos, signifying praise and thanks to the Lady of the House for blessings conferred and mercies rendered: a mortal illness cured, a barren womb filled, a lost child restored – human frailty and the multitudinous chances of life writ large. As I stood with Mike at my side, perusing this chaotic jumble of answered prayers, I asked him: “Do you think it’s true?” to which he answered firmly: “Yes, and on the way out, reverted to this exchange with no further cue from me: “And it’s all true.” Among the crutches and scribbled papers and idiosyncratic mementos was one item that held my particular attention. It was the photograph of a redcheeked, darkhaired overweight man with a mustache attired in an unfamiliar uniform, posed against a TV set and a plush sofa. His note to the Virgin, accompanying this photograph related that on 9/ll she had led him from a high floor in the second Trade Tower, where he worked as a guard, through the enveloping smoke and flames, advising him at every turnng which way to go. It was by dint of his prayers to her, and her counsel to him, that he had emerged from this inferno which had consumed so many others, less lucky or less pious. What a bridge of faith had been thrown up by one of her sons from this small Mediterranean island to the hub of the world a continent away.
      So Malta had figured in yet another, more recent invasion, if only in respect to one man’s fate, and the symmetry of the thing made it tempting to speculate: Were Bin Laden’s lieutenants any different from Suleimen’s suicidal Janissaries, bred up to ruthless destruction and indifference to personal well being? Were they no different from the Turks who had scaled Valetta’s walls in their flimsy flammable garments flung back like living torches into the harbor? What had happened to five hundred centuries of intervening discovery, in fine arts, medicine, architecture, astronomy, mathematics, and political science? Was mankind no closer to restraining his thirst for vengeance, his hatred and his rage? And how did the Virgin, at home not just in Malta, but in Heaven itself, where she reigns with a chaplet of flowers on her head and a carpet of clouds beneath her feet, figure in this tale of one century emerging to defy another? Hadn’t generations of husbands, sons, and fathers found her likeness in their daughters, their wives, their sisters; hadn’t her image nurtured, sustained and inspired over centuries, not a slave, not a servant, not a toy for the senses, but a metaphor for the womb ensouled? Her features are not to be found behind the burka, her tears do not gush from the oil‑rich desert, her voice does not praise her Maker issuing from the throats of prostrate men behind the thick walls of a mosque; conceived with her God from the beginning, in her sex she is the equal of any man in the community of saints, a Teresa or Joan as richly haloed as a John or Thomas. The rights of women ‑ political, social, economic ‑ so fiercely debated in our time could not, one thinks, have been secured without these centuries of spiritual equality. And in countless houses of worship, from as many vaults and apses and transepts, hang these trophies of gratitude to a surrogate mother, the civilizing idea one misses so acutely in the austere patriarchies of the East.


Christmas Story

Christmas Story
One of the few pleasures of Hitler’s life…
was the excellent cuisine of his new diet cook.
Madame von Exner was also young, attractive,
and Viennese… Bormann, whose advances had
been repelled by Frau von Exner, discovered
there was Jewish blood on her mother’s side,
and got his revenge by pressing the matter until
Hitler, who wished it had never been raised,
felt obliged to dismiss her. But he gave her
six months’ salary and made the entire Exner
family honorary Aryans.
Tolman, Hitler p. 799
GLOSS: This anecdote does more than demonstrate the triumph of the concrete over the abstract. It reminds the Bible reader that New Testament figures such as John the Baptist, Mary, Joseph, and the Christ-child himself have been made into Honorary Christians.

Against Rilke

But young people err so often and so grievously in this: that they (in whose nture it lies to have no patience) fling themselves at each other, when love takes possession of them, scatter themselves, just as they are, in all their untidiness, disorder, confusion…. And then what? What is life to do to this heap of half-battered existence which they call their communion and which they would gladly call their happiness, if it were possible, and their future? Thus each loses himself for the sake of the other and loses the other and many others that wanted still to come. And loses the expanses and the possibilities, exchanges the approach and flight of gentle, divining things for an unfruitful perplexity out of which nothing can come any more, nothing save a little disgust, disillusionment and poverty, and rescue in one of the many conventions that have been put up in great number like public refuges along this most dangerous road.

[Irren die jungen Menschen so oft und so schwer: dass sie (in deren Wesen es liegt, keine Geduld zu haben) sich einander hinwerfen, wenn die Liebe uber sie kommt, sich ausstreuen, so wie sie sind in all ihrer Unaufgeraumtheit, Unordnung, Wirrnis… Was aber soll denn sein? Was soll das Leben an diesem Haufen von Halbzerschlagenem tun, den sie ihre gemeinsamkeit heissen und den sie gerne ihr Gluck nennen mochten, ginge es an, und ihre Zukunft? Da verliert jeder sich um des anderen willen und veriert den anderen und viele andere, die noch kommen wollten. Und verliert die weiten und Moglichkeiten, tauscht das Nahen und Fliehen leiser, ahnungsvoller Dinge gegen eine unfruchtbare Ratlosigkeit, aus der nichts mehr kommen kann; nichts als ein wenig Ekel, Enttauschung und Armut und die Rettung in eine der vielen Konventionen, die wie allgemeine Schutzhutten an diesem gefahrlichsten Wege in grosse Zahl angebracht sind.]

The beauty of expression is so persuasive one is tempted to pass over the repellent content. But suppose this were said baldly: You are too young to love. You don’t know how. You will make a mess of it. Leave love to your elders and betters, those who are wise enough to know what use to make of it. Left to your own devices, you will either throw yourself away, or, worst case, get trapped in a bourgeois marriage, in which you will be forever loveless, deprived even of the liasons you might otherwise have enjoyed (viele andere, die noch kommen wollten). All the joyous, eloquent and passionate young lovers of Shakespeare rise up and cry shame!

A Short Essay on the Religious Imagination, with special reference to Anton Chekhov and a personal experience.

It is inbuilt in mankind to suppose there are forces controlling his destiny beyond those he can manage for himself.This is self- evident in his obvious helplessness in the face of nature and the aggression of human instincts. Nature devastates and man devastates. What protection is there? The gods, not man, are responsible for events, and given that events are unpredictable and most often take a harsh toll, the gods apparently are not friendly to men. So they must be propitated. And how? With human blood. Why? Because life is the most precious attribute of a man, and what ought one give to the god but what is most precious?


Thus, in its earliest stages, human sacrifice is the rule.(1) It is endemic in the area where the Jewish people originate. The struggle against it can be traced as a “red thread” throughout the Old Testament, where it preempts much of the narrative. (2) The outcome of this struggle is prefigured in Genesis, when Isaac is replaced on the altar by a stag, sent by God as a substitute for Abraham’s son. There are many stories in the Old Testament, but there is but one overriding message: Love thy God. This God is One and to be feared and obeyed. How is His will known? Through the prophets, the first of whom, Moses, institutes His Commandments. Here then, the burden of the good life is put on man himself, not on unpredictable deities. God is only partly responsible for human vicissitudes. To thrive, man must cooperate, he must obey the Law. There is nothing in the Commandments that indicates how this God is to be worshiped, except with all one’s heart, mind, and strength. There is nothing in them that outlaws human sacrifice. But having established Jahweh as One, he is in natural competition with the multiplicity of gods in the surrounding area. And the hallmark of these gods is that they require human blood.) The zeal of the prophets is constantly directed against backsliding, against the bloodthirsty hunger of Baal and the worshipers who feed him their sons and daughters, against the temptation of the Hebrews to go over to them; the struggle is both religious and political. It will persist until Jerusalem is established and the Temple is built and the Ark is housed. The Hebrews, by the time they have built the Temple, have largely replaced human sacrifice with animal sacrifice. Blood is spilled, blood is required, but it is not the blood of beating human hearts. It has been replaced by the blood of birds and beasts.


If, in a nutshell, the message of the Old Testament is Love thy God, the message of the New Testament is Love thy Neighbor. In the Old,
God punishes Saul, after having commanded him to exterminate  the Amalekites, to the last man, woman, child and even beast, for sparing them. In other words, he is punished for being merciful.  This punishment epitomizes vengeance required and vengeance executed. In the New Testament, Israel, although a client of Rome, is a firmly established state. Rome may be the enemy, but Rome is far away. One’s neighbor is next door. He is to be loved, not conquered. Revenge – an eye of an eyes and a tooth for a tooth – is alchemized into forgiveness, “seventy times seven” times, an enemy is to be forgiven. Judgment is qualified by mercy.

The bridge that connects these opposing views is the shift in the meaning of sacrifice. The New Testament continues the story in an unprecedented way. In place of animal sacrifice, comes the one-time sacrifice of a man who symbolically incorporates all other types of sacrifice into himself, because, contrary even to his deepest wish, it is a sacrifice that is voluntary. Thus, the idea of sacrifice is transposed to the will of the individual man. It issues from the freedom to choose. When Jesus drives the money changers out of the Temple, he is not just driving out commerce. This act anticipates a rejection of the very notion that a bird or animal’s blood can count as an acceptable offering to God. Henceforth it will be reconfigured in bread and wine, offered as a sacrifice in the Mass. What nourishes man nourishes God.

In John, Jesus commands his disciples to love each other as he has loved them. This is the lead-in to the famous ssaying: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” The place taken by Love in the New Testament as opposed to Law in the Old is summarized in this saying, and with it, the idea of love, not propitiation or appeasement, as the basis for sacrifice. It culminates in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.(3)

From this sacrifice derives a rationale for suffering conspicuously absent in antiquity. To the Greeks, suffering was unavoidable and pointless, a condition of the universe. A great draft of cosmic indifference whistles through Greek tragedy. In the Old Testament personal suffering is figured in Job, a story which humbles the imagination. Job accepts his lot unconditionally as God’s will, and with acceptance propsperity redoubles. With the Resurrection, something new is introduced: Jesus-become-Christ valorizes suffering by making it into an example. This view is in wide currency today, especially as a consolation for pain. But one remembers the woman who, when offered Jesus as a consolatory example, replies: “Yes, but Jesus suffered for three hours. I have suffered a lifetime.” It is convenient, perhaps plausible, but remains as empty as the words of Job’s comforters, unless joined to some personal persuasion that there is a good to be found in pain. What is purpose-driven is acceptable. If one can indeed find a purpose, or invent a purpose, even after the fact, the ordeal is more easily withstood.

And now we come to Chekhov, and the remarkable way he suggests suffering, shorn of a basis in religious thought, is sacrificial in and of itself. Unlike any playwright in the English-speaking canon, Chekhov writes characters whose restlessness seeks a meaning to life, to their trials and vexations, their suffering and pain. Hamlet and MacBeth despair. But they do not comfort themselves with ideology. (4) In “The Seagull,” art substitutes for religion. In “Uncle Vanya,” Sonia, still within the tradition of faith, voices a belief in the afterlife, nay, the Millenium, which feels more like a fervent wish than a conviction. But in the next play, “The Three Sisters,” all reference to Christianity is displaced by what one might call a type of humanism, except one thinks humanism must be better tailored to the actual needs of living men and women. People suffer in the present so the future will be happy for others.


Our suffering will be changed to joy for those who come after us.

And in “The Cherry Orchard:


The moon is rising. Happiness is nearing. I can see it.. and if we miss it… does it really matter? It will arrive for others.

But Vershinin in “The Three Sisters” takes this idea a step further:


In two or three hundred years… a new and happy life will begin… it is our lives and our effort and yes! our suffering that is helping to bring it about, and, if you like, our only happiness.

Future happiness is dependent on present suffering. So that suffering not only has a rationale, it is necessary. It is not even one’s children or grandchildren who are being spoken of here. It is a wolloping abstraction that has overwhelmed the concrete.

The most remarkable feature of this kind of thinking is that it prefigures the ideology of the October Revolution, Thus, the notorious phrase “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” to justify famine, mass murder, and eventually, the police state. Its cruelty and absurdity, its anti-humanistic thrust which turns the whole project upside down – the omelette was illusory – is epitomized in the tragic resonance of Mandelstam’s lines:

For the thundering glory of future generations,/for the sake of a tall race of men/ I have forfeited my seat at the feast of my fathers,/ I have laid down my honor and my good cheer.

Here I would like to append a footnote from personal experience. It is my belief that suffering is made salutary – that is, builds a bridge to others rather than isolates from them – only when it has been deprived of any meaning one is likely to ascribe to it – when it is made naked, is denuded of all props.(5) I have in mind not so much physical pain as the Chekhovian variety: mental anquish, or despair; and to this end, in an attempt to make sense of past events, once wrote the paragraph which follows:

All this time, I had borne with the pressures of disintegration,    vaguely expecting that one day I would simply die, as if from internal combustion. I would not have to kill myself. It would happen for me. Past and future were equally closed off. I could not anticipate. I could not remember. I, who had once been thought promising, at twenty-five had come on terminal failure; and so shame was added to the witch’s broth of despair and runaway guilt. I knew that I had long since overstepped the boundary of normal human unhappiness with the onslaught of new geographies in consciousness; but I did not give this new territory a name. The point at which it occurred to me that something else might be at play – that the borderline of sanity had been crossed – was when, one afternoon in late February, vibrations in my palms announced that I was in the grip of a religious hallucination.

Napoleon and Christ are the polar cliches of the asylum, the one an exemplar of absolute power, the other of absolute helplessness. The lunatic who thinks he is Napoleon removes himself from suffering through the illusion of control. The lunatic who thinks he is Christ identifies with suffering to such a degree that he incorporates it into himself in order to justify it. He makes of himself the Exemplary Victim. The lure of meaning is more compelling than suffering itself when suffering without meaning is pushed to its limits. The false meaning of the Exemplary Victim is a solution to the search for meaning that is otherwise fruitless.

I understood in that moment that suffering has no meaning. Meaning is imposed on it. This was the endpoint of my journey down. I could go no lower.(5)

And indeed, isn’t it precisely here that the Christian role model kicks in? For it is undeniable that in two of the Gospels, the words: “My God my God, why has Thou forsaken me” – are ascribed to the man on the cross? And what can these words mean but that to him, his suffering is denuded of meaning? has none?

I continue in the conviction that it is not until the individual recognizes and ackhowledges that suffering is meaningless, that some remedy in the psyche is affected, that it is incorporated into experience in a way that does not lead to apathy, cynacism, pessimism, or nihilism. With these in the forefront, nothing can be advanced, nothing redeemed. In the Biblical story, this acknowledgment is followed by resurrection. (6)


1. It is interesting to note, in this respect, that the Greeks, and subsequently the Romans, seem to have avoided the stage of human sacrifice. The Illiad and Aenead are full of the blood of beasts – In both epics great hecatombs of cattle are offered in celebration and supplication to the denizens of Olympus; who themselves are viewed not as inimical to man, but so capricious in their quarrels and jealousies and vainglory, that they are almost indistinquishable from those they rule – the Greek religious imagination, like its art, is deeply humanistic.

There is an exception in the story of Iphegineia, the daughter of Agamemnon. An oracle requires her to be sacrificed to Artemis in order to stir up the winds and set sail for Troy. As in the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, she is rescued on the altar, when replaced by a stag (deer). Artemis, like God, does not want human blood.

2. It is difficult to know what to make of the story of Japtheth’sdaughter, who, like Jairus’ daughter in the New, is nameless. (Judges ll:29) It might be called an “inadvertant” sacrifice. Jeptheth is a general who makes a bargain with God: Give me success in battle and I will give you (as a “burnt offering”)_ the first creature to exit my house on my return. He conquers the Ammonites, and when his daughter, rejoicing with dance and music, comes to meet him, he is obligated to keep his word. The story, in its irony, has a Greek flavor. Interpreters don’t know what to make of it. Two are punished: Japtheth, who loses his beloved only child, and with her, the hope of posterity; and the daughter, whose life is forfeit. What is the meaning? That the sins of the fathers are visited on the children? But what is the sin? Overconfidence? Rashness? Bargain-making with God? A bargain implies a transaction between equals, and this would, in fact, be blasphemous. Some interpretations argue that her life is spared, as, although willing enough to comply with her father’s rash vow, she asks for two months’ grace “to bewail her virginity”: the punishment brought on her father, who cannot hope to perpetuate his line, and if spared, on herself, being cut off from marriage and children, a Hebrew woman’s best hope; a request that is granted, after which, Japtheth “did with her according to the vow he had vowed” – serves her up to the fire, one would think: but the curious sentence is added “and she knew no man.” The result was the institution of a sort of four-day holiday on which the “daughters of Israel” remember this other daughter and lament – what? her death? Perpetual virginity?

3. What a paradox that it was precisely when the Gospels were made accessible through translation, and, one would have thought, Jesus’s rejection of violence could not be gainsaid, the wars of religion started to gather steam. The wine – content – was turned sour by the bottle – doctrine.

4. For a fuller elaboration of this theme in Chekhov’s plays, see my introduction to Uncle Vanya and Other Plays, Bantam Press, 1994.

5. Of course, one can never be sure. Life is still being lived, with possibilities of other bottoms, other intelligence.

6. And yet and yet… how many reports from the camps indicate that what often kept those alive who survived was a sense of purpose; but this was not purpose TO suffering, it was the purpose
in the subject to bear witness to its senselessness.